Applying Jewish values, Lawrence president makes college affordable

 

APPLETON — Mark Burstein, a man strongly influenced by Jewish values, is going to have his university start charging college students only what they can afford to pay.

The president of Lawrence University is leading his institution to become the only “full-need” institution in Wisconsin. Full need means the college uses federal guidelines to calculate what a family can afford to pay and then covers any costs beyond student aid. In other words, students are asked to pay only what they can.

The school is working to raise $85 million for an endowment to meet all its students’ full need. So far, it has about $77 million and it’s already doling out grants.

Make no mistake, this a big deal. Only 65 universities nationwide are designated full-need institutions and with this move Lawrence in Appleton, Wisconsin is entering a space occupied by Ivy League and other elite colleges with hefty endowments, according to Inside Higher Ed.

“Through my upbringing as a Jew, social justice issues and the importance of education were primary and those two themes are still very present in my work on this campus,” Burstein said. He holds in high regard “the need to create a society that’s more equity minded.”

The average Lawrence grant for need-based families is about $24,000. Being a full-need school would bring it up to $29,000.

Here’s how need works. You fill out forms and a federal methodology says how much your family can contribute to college. Then, there are government loans, grants and work-study to financially assist that family.

“A full-need institution would take over where that layer cake ends,” Burstein said.

Burstein hadn’t thought much about full need until one memorable student came to see him during office hours. Burstein remembers that the student said, “I have a B-plus average. I’m working 38 hours a week. I’m already taking out $28,000 in debt. I can’t pay for more. It’s my sophomore year. I love it here. What should I do?”

Burstein asked him, have you thought about transferring to a state college?

The student objected: “I love it here.”

That’s what launched Burstein. About $77 million later, he’s almost at $85 million and predicts they’ll make it.

Zionist youth movement

Burstein was raised in a suburb of New York, in New Jersey. His family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, switching to a Reconstructionist one.

He grew up in the Young Judea Zionist youth movement. His Jewish involvement included summer camp, a junior year in Israel, and a post-high school gap year working on a Zionist program in Israel. (“I think Israel’s still very important for the Jewish people. I am hopeful that it will find a way to also truly support Palestinian aspirations,” he said.)

Another project important to Burstein at the school has been the creation of a Center for Spiritual and Religious Life on campus.

Lawrence did a survey and found religious students didn’t feel fully welcome, including many Christians. Burstein felt he had to address the issue. “For me we very clearly say that we are about educating the whole student. It’s not just to be the best economics or biology major,” he said.

Rev. Linda Morgan-Clement started as the new Julie Esch Hurvis Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, in fall 2016. Her office is at the Center.

The Center – a lovely cottage appointed with a fireplace, living room and kitchen ­– sits at the edge of the campus and hosts the small campus Hillel group every Friday. Also here, a Unitarian group meets, as do pagans, Muslims, Buddhists and others.

“I don’t think of myself as an answer person,” Morgan-Clement said. “I think of myself as trying to create a space.”